Phil Latzman: Florida should realize pot could be a windfall

2014 is here, and with it a new reality about the laws governing marijuana, and the potential "pot" of gold it could provide for cash-starved states around the country.

The evidence is already partially wafting in from Colorado, where weed is now legal for recreational use to anyone 21 and older. The early smoke rings are blazing a path to financial success.

The new law, enacted this month, was passed in a 2012 ballot initiative by 55 percent of voters. It came over the objections of nearly every state lawmaker, including the governor. But instead of seeing red, those state leaders may now be seeing green.

On the first day of legal sales January 1st, sensemillia seekers lined up outside retail pot outlets and bought over $1 million. The state estimates Coloradans will buy over $600 million in legal marijuana this year alone. With a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale purchases, and a 10 percent tax on retail sales, that would translate to $67 million in new tax revenues in 2014.

The law's implementation also directly benefits education.Through an bipartisan initiative in the state legislature, the first $40 million of that money goes right to schools construction.

There are indirect positive impacts to Colorado's coffers as well. It's estimated that 30 percent of sales will come from out-of-state. The extra visitors immediately boost tourism, meaning additional millions for hotels, attractions and resorts, along the taxes that go with it. Legalizing pot may also help eliminate the criminal element, making streets and neighborhoods safer and freeing police to enforce more important laws. The effect could ease the burden on prisons overcrowded with minor drug offenders and save the state millions more in incarceration costs.

That kind of revenue windfall gives new meaning to "Rocky Mountain High", and should leave other states like Florida, gasping for a hit of the profits. But Tallahassee is desperately behind the curve, and the chances of marijuana legalization here in any form appears slim. That's despite it being one of the most populist issues we have.

Nearly 1-million state signatures have already been gathered on a petition asking that medical marijuana be put front of voters this November, and a recent poll by Quinnipiac University indicates 82 percent of Floridians would say yes.

Florida lawmakers, though, appear to want to Bogart that joint before it gets in to the hands of the public. The effort has been stymied by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who argues potential ballot language would be confusing. The Florida Supreme Court is currently taking up the matter. Verifying signatures on the petition will also take time, and the measure could go up in smoke before the February 1 ballot deadline.

Marijuana usage isn't for everyone, especially the underdeveloped minds of children. In some cases it can lead to more dangerous drug abuse. As the parent of two teenagers I worry about that. But most can agree that it is safer and less addictive than alcohol, and its negative consequences of usage less severe, especially behind the wheel.

We all know by now that pot has been proven to be medically beneficial and is prescribed for chronic pain, and for treatment of symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy and other ailments. Knowing this, 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, have now made pot legal for medical purposes. New York is the latest to consider changing its laws to accommodate medical marijuana. If other states follow suit, that puts Florida at risk of losing residents, a disastrous consequence for a state that relies on population growth to steer its future economy.

Whether the state goes to pot for medical use will become a burning issue in this year's governor's race. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has been a leading voice against legalization. His likely Democratic opponent Charlie Crist is for it, but may have a dubious conflict. His friend and former boss John Morgan of the omnipresent Morgan and Morgan law firm is spearheading and bankrolling the ballot initiative.

It should make for interesting fodder in a governor's race that could be the most expensive in state history. But no matter who wins and unless Florida lights up to the idea quickly, we will remain stoned out of a chance to make millions in taxable income. That's the sobering reality.

Phil Latzman is a veteran radio journalist in South Florida.


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